Posted: January 31, 2017
n the days leading up to the inauguration of Donald Trump, the streets in one wealthy corner of northwest Washington, D.C., were draped with flags almost from one end to the other. They recalled Monet’s painting of the Rue Montorgueil that hangs in the Musée d’Orsay, or the oils that the American impressionist Childe Hassam painted of street parades towards the end of World War I. These, however, were not national flags but the rainbow-striped banners of the gay rights movement. They were directed, in embitterment rather than celebration, at an audience of one: Indiana Governor Mike Pence, the vice president-elect. Pence had done two things to offend the flag-wavers. As Indiana governor in the days after gay marriage became law in 2015, he had signed a bill defending freedom of religion. Worse, after November 8 he had rented a house on nearby Tennyson Street for the presidential transition. Now up and down his street the yard signs jostled, some reading “I Stand With Planned Parenthood,” others “This Neighborhood Respects Women.” Particularly popular was a peacock-blue sign reading “Hate Has No Home Here” and “El odio no tiene hogar aquí,” which must be Spanish for “Stay out of our neighborhood, Hoosier.”
Regrettable though it may be that political passions would lead a whole neighborhood to act inhospitably, it is only human. It was a bitter contest, after all. Trump’s win was a shock. What is more worrisome is the estrangement of ruling-class neighborhoods like this one from the part of the country that voted for Trump, their near-unanimous incomprehension of, and contempt for, the democracy movement that just said “Enough!” to the politics of recent decades. In an election that Democrats lost at virtually every level, the capital city gave Hillary Clinton 93% of its votes, and Trump 4%. All the country’s grand, modern, and cultured places followed suit. Pence’s neighbors seemed to assume he did not realize there was any such thing as homosexuality or abortion or the Spanish language. Merely alerting him that such things existed might therefore be a satisfying way to wound him. And why not wound him? It was impossible that Trump and Pence could be legitimate occupants of the White House because it was impossible to believe that 60 million people would vote for such boobs.
A robust enthusiasm for American democracy is unlikely to survive where such sentiments prevail. Michael Tomasky of the New York Review of Books described Trump as laboring under “suspicions about his legitimacy far greater than those faced by any modern president,” partly because he lost the popular vote by more than two million votes. On the other hand, President Trump arrives in power with more of the country behind him than either Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton had. His victory was, of course, a close-run thing. But looked at closely, it leaves a political situation resembling those that have followed some of the great landslides in American history. Conflict awaits.
The Democratic Archipelago
Here is a trivia question for you: Ohio has only one city with more than 400,000 people. Name it.
Strangers to the Buckeye State might well tick through Cleveland (388,000), Cincinnati (299,000), Toledo (280,000), and even Akron and Dayton before they get the answer. It is Columbus, the capital, which, at 850,000, is more than twice as populous as any other city in the state. It is the 15th-largest city in the country. It grew, in part, because energies that used to go into building and selling now go into managing and administering. Fortunes and family lives now depend on how regulations get drawn up and how problems get defined. It is only natural that political “polarization” should be on the rise: The stakes of governing are rising.
Any place that has political power becomes a choke-point through which global money streams must pass. Such places are sheltered from globalization’s storms. They tend to grow. Austin, Texas, adds tens of thousands of residents a year, and is now the country’s 11th-largest city. The four richest counties in the United States are all in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Resources are sucked from almost everywhere into political capitals and a few high-tech centers and university towns allied with them, where ambitious people settle and constitute a class. The Democratic Party is the party of that class, the class of the winners of globalization.
There are now just three regions of the country in which Democrats dominate—New England, California, and the Pacific Northwest. Otherwise, the party’s support comes from the archipelago of powerful New Economy cities it controls. Washington, D.C., with its 93-to-4 partisan breakdown, is not that unusual. Hillary Clinton won Cambridge, Massachusetts, by 89 to 6 and San Francisco by 86 to 9. Here, where the future of the country is mapped out, the “rest” of the country has become invisible, indecipherable, foreign.
And the rest of the country belongs to Trump. Pretty much all of it. Trump took 85% of America’s counties; Hillary Clinton took 15%. Trump even won a third of the counties that voted for Barack Obama twice. In November the New York Times had the idea of drawing up a topographical map for each candidate that showed won counties as land and lost counties as water. Trump’s America looks almost exactly like the actual United States, diminished a bit on the coasts and with a couple of new “lakes” opened up in urban areas. Hillary’s looks like the Lesser Antilles. It is possible to travel coast to coast—from, say, Coos Bay, Oregon, to Wilmington, North Carolina—without passing through a single county that Hillary Clinton won. Indeed there are several such routes. This is the heart of the country and it is experiencing a kind of social decline for which American history offers no precedent. (The economic crises of the 1870s and 1930s were something different.) Here people fall over, overdosed on heroin, in the aisles of dollar stores, and residential neighborhoods are pocked with foreclosures. This country, largely invisible to policymakers until the 2016 election, is beginning—only just beginning—to come into view. Trump was the first candidate to speak directly to the invisible country as something other than the “everyplace else” left over when you drive away from the places that are powerful, scenic, or sophisticated.
We have no idea what forces Trump has unleashed. They look mighty in some lights and meager in others. It was a very unfashionable thing to vote for Trump, and Americans are, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, an emulative people. Even a person who desperately wants to change his society would never expose himself to the scorn and retribution of his shift manager or his fiancée’s parents, if he thought the chances of change were zero. When pundits spoke during the campaign of the two candidates having the lowest approval ratings of any pair in history, they were comparing different things. Hillary Clinton was the candidate of the culture. She represented what people were supposed to believe. When she rose in the polls, the newspapers filled up with speculation about her cabinet. Donald Trump stood against what people were supposed to believe. When he rose in the polls, the papers were full of anxious reflections on how ignorant and hateful Americans had become. Once Trump had won, and it was no longer embarrassing or socially dangerous to declare one’s support, his approval began to drift towards its natural level—from 38% on Election Day to 47% in mid-December. It may drift higher still. Voters can dissemble a long time before they show their hand. On November 8, 2016, they showed their hand.
Tribalism, Not Ideology
Trump understood something no Republican had understood in decades. The partisan division in the United States was less about ideology than about sociology. Ideology was there, of course, but it arose from the sociology: you look at life differently when you write the rules than when you have to submit to them.
Republican consultants thought exclusively in ideological terms. After their defeat in 2012, they assumed they just needed nicer “messaging.” Led by RNC chairman Reince Priebus, now President Trump’s chief of staff, they composed a 100-page “Growth and Opportunity” report, which urged the party to be less “scary” by taking more liberal positions on gay marriage and immigration. This was an insult to Republicans, Democrats, and interest groups of all sorts, and a misunderstanding of how politics works. Politicians need to do considerably more than be nice to win a following, ethnic or not. Voters rally to a politician who delivers rights, privileges, and services. Over decades, Democrats had earned the allegiance of minorities by fighting for real gains—affirmative action, funding for women’s athletics, gay marriage, delayed deportation. Democrats occasionally pursued these rights at a cost to their careers, and often at a cost to democracy. They had gone so far as to devise new categories of minority to whom rights, privileges, and services could be promised and delivered—“transgender” people, most recently. If you appreciated the new rights, as most minorities came to, you would have to be crazy to vote for a Republican just because your opinions overlapped on this or that issue. Republicans were auditioning for a role as the second-best civil rights party, which they planned to add to their portfolio as the second-best (because too far from power to deliver favors) capitalist party. Every Republican candidate for president in 2016, except Trump, swallowed this strategy whole.
Trump intuited that the difference between Republicans and Democrats was a tribal one. Feminism and anti-racism had become successful policies not because they convinced voters logically or struck them as sensible, although in many cases they did, but because they conveyed loyalty viscerally. “Breaking the glass ceiling,” for instance, was supposed to be the theme of Hillary Clinton’s victory party on election night at New York’s Javits Center. Her staff chose that venue because it literally has the largest glass ceiling surface in New York. Glass-ceiling rhetoric was not an ethical argument but a war-cry. It was not about women but about our women. When, shortly after the election, Trump named his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway a White House counselor, his press release announced she was “the first female campaign manager of either major party to win a presidential general election,”—which indeed she was! Had ideological feminism rather than tribal loyalty been at issue, this would have been considered an achievement worthy of extensive coverage. It was not.
The Democrats appeared to be overwhelming old Republican redoubts through sheer force of demographics. Almost all the networks had begun hiring young, hip, metropolitan quipsters to explain the “America of Tomorrow” or the “Next America” that residents of the Democratic Archipelago had charted out for everyone else. CNN had L.Z. Granderson, whom the website Queerty described as “breaking barriers for black gay men in journalism.” In 2014, Granderson had surely spoken for many progressives when he gave his idea of what he would like to see traditional American culture do in this increasingly diverse age:
We often talk openly about the different generational views when it comes to same-sex marriages and how we cavalierly say, as the older generation die off, so does that hatred and perspective die off in our country as well. And it needs to be said, the same thing about race. When it comes to certain aspects of talking about people of different races, certain ideas and perspectives, it’s time to die off. I’m not saying people need to die off, but those attitudes need to die off.
Unfortunately actual white people, particularly in rural areas, did happen to be dying off. Their life expectancy was falling sharply, even as those of other ethnic groups was rising. At three o’clock in the morning on Election Night, as Donald Trump was making his way through the crowd to deliver his victory speech to the sound of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a shocked Granderson, commenting on a show called “Your Voice, Your Vote,” implied that the white death rate had been the bedrock of Democratic Party strategizing all along:
For quite some time now Democrats have been hemorrhaging white male votes. And the assumption was that, because of the changing demographics of the nation, that that would not hurt them in a general election…. This is a huge slap in the face in terms of all the people who thought that this white part of the population was dying off and that all you had to do was appeal to minorities.
Culture of Corruption
The archipelago of constituencies loyal to Democrats is small geographically. But it has lately set close to 100% of the agenda, and did so even in the 2016 election. Even Trump dared offer only minor dissents from it. The important cultural innovations of the Obama Administration can fairly be said to have been introduced without debate, or at least in disregard of what debate had been going on. Gay marriage was this way, as was the complex of issues surrounding transgender bathrooms. Where did the anti-police movement Black Lives Matter come from, with its mix of street violence and campus political correctness? Who was funding it? Why didn’t it halt its protests when five police were massacred at one of them in Dallas? Why was no one in authority talking about the heroin and opioid epidemic, even as it was killing more Americans than any drug wave in American history, more even than car accidents? Perhaps the main thing voters were trying to do in 2016 was to restore democratic scrutiny to actors who had long managed to evade it. We will never know, because for many years Americans have felt unable to talk about such things in public at all. The morning after the election, President Obama said to Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, “The most important thing that I’m focused on is how we create a common set of facts.” That was the problem of his whole presidency. Political rhetoric doesn’t create facts. There was something Soviet about this whole approach—a tendency to mistake dissent for psychosis or hallucination. In a 93-to-4 world, no other grounds for dissent could be imagined.
Never in American history had a ruling class been more poorly equipped to take the moral high ground against a candidate who played fast and loose with the facts. One need not have supported Trump to see that he did not do an extraordinary number of the things he was alleged to have done. It is not true, as New Yorker editor David Remnick alleged, that “Trump began his campaign declaring Mexican immigrants to be ‘rapists.’” What he said was:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
It is not true, as PBS alleged, that Trump was “urging a foreign government to meddle in American politics.” Any human being with a sense of humor could see that Trump was joking when he tweeted, in response to an allegation that files had been stolen from DNC servers, “If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!”
Those who couldn’t understand Trump were even less likely to understand Trump’s people. Hillary Clinton’s remark, at a gay-rights fundraiser, that half of Trump voters were a “basket of deplorables” has been understood as one of the major blunders of the campaign. That is clear only in retrospect. It is not as if Clinton was appearing on Candid Camera. She herself had opened the event to the press. It is likely she was trying to shame a public that was proving reluctant to vote for her, to show them that if they persisted in backing Trump they would be laughed at by their social betters. Why not try such a strategy? It had worked in Tocqueville’s time, and for as long as Clinton had been in politics. The whole press embraced it. A headline from Dana Milbank of the Washington Post in late October read: “Trump can’t just be defeated. He must be humiliated.” Another, ten days later, over an article by Dean Obeidallah of the Daily Beast, read: “Donald Trump Can’t Merely Be Defeated—He and His Deplorables Must Be Crushed.” After the election, Jamelle Bouie of Slate was undaunted: “There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter,” the headline ran.
This harmony of views was the result not of co-ordination, at least not in most cases, but of a common culture that rested on naïveté about, or indifference to, how life is lived outside of the urban archipelago. A moment that defined Trump to the country, cleaving his potential supporters from sworn enemies, came on February 23 as he was trying to brag about how broad-based was the victory he had just won in the Nevada Republican caucuses:
We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.
It is hard to recall a single journalist in any major venue who thought that last sentiment was anything but a disgrace. Who the heck loves the poorly educated? Being poorly educated was a culpability. It was not a compensable status, like being tempest-tost or lacking health insurance. No one thought to say that Jesus loved the poorly educated, or that the poorly educated were no less citizens of the republic than the tenured faculty at Oberlin. No, Trump’s remark was considered not just awkward but appalling. He seemed to have forgotten who America was for.
We now know he was the only candidate who hadn’t. The key to Trump’s victory was his interpretation of the cultural elite as a class in the strongest sense of the word, a set of people who used government as a means of expanding their privileges and imposing their values. Democrats, again, were the party of this class.
As his campaign had been, his presidency was thus a standing insult to his opponents. He treated them as if they were propping up some kind of racket. He didn’t even do them the honor of disagreeing with them. Most of the people who flew the rainbow flag against Mike Pence in northwest Washington are not gay, and most of the people who displayed the signs reading “El odio no tiene hogar aquí” do not speak enough Spanish to order a burrito. They simply have, as they see it, a more highly elaborated sense of the public good than Trump and Pence do. Trump answered their orotund earnestness with Tweets. He hit practitioners of identity politics at the core of their identity, implying they said these things not because they were more virtuous but because they were, like him, members of the One Percent.
Back to Jackson
The victory that Trump won was about more than applying the epithet “Crooked” to the Democratic opposition. It was also an acknowledgment that essential parts of so-called “movement conservatism”—not just George W. Bush’s wars but also Ronald Reagan’s economic philosophy—had failed. The 1980s was a time of many Republican successes. It was also the decade when the Right broke the Left’s monopoly on making stupid generalizations about capitalism. Over the past generation, while Republicans have been dreaming their dreams of pure free markets, more and more of the American economy has been regulated into conformity with government administrators’ wishes. A lot of this process has been driven by the very corporations Republicans champion. It is extraordinary how much liberty has been extinguished since Republicans brought the libertarians to Washington.
Trump saw Republicans not as Democrats’ foes but as their sidekicks and enablers. The system needed, as Trump saw it, to be reformed in a much deeper way than Republicans had ever thought necessary. Ronald Reagan, however vivid and appealing his diagnosis of government inefficiency, had underestimated the wiliness and tenacity that an administrative ruling class would bring to the defense of its prerogatives. Running in 2012, Mitt Romney could not conceive of such a thing. In speeches and in debates with Barack Obama over favoritism towards the Obama-connected green energy firm Solyndra, Romney had said he didn’t think government should be “chasing fads and picking winners and losers.” But his differences with the Obama Administration were purely a matter of efficiency, never of fairness or self-government. Cronyism was not the problem at Solyndra:
Programs like NASA develop technologies that ultimately can be commercialized. But for the government to say “oh, we think the world should make this kind of car” or “that kind of solar panel,” that’s almost certain to fail. Now and then there will be a winner, but overwhelmingly they’re going to be losers. Let the private market work.
Republicans like Romney have traditionally warned that the government was being run by incompetents. Trump did something different. He implied the government is being run by crooks. The New York Times was puzzled by Trump’s cabinet picks, looking at them in terms of policy subtleties, and finding that “a picture is emerging of an administration with little ideological cohesion and no single animating purpose.” In fact there has never been a cabinet picked on simpler or more coherent grounds. Namely, that the agencies as they are now constituted are terminally corrupt. “Drain the swamp,” as much as any policy suggestion about trade or immigration, appears to be the message at the core of the early Trump presidency. Almost all his nominees are skeptics or opponents of the agencies they have been brought in to run. He has nominated Andy Puzder, a fast-food entrepreneur skeptical about union rights, as Labor secretary. Georgia congressman Tom Price, who wants an end to Obamacare, has been nominated to run Health and Human Services. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a skeptic about climate change, was tapped for EPA. Lawyer Robert Lighthizer, a free trade skeptic, is his pick for U.S. trade representative.
Certain parallels are emerging between President Trump and Andrew Jackson, another wealthy and capable conservative (of a sort) who was nonetheless thought a barbarian by many of his peers, and who overturned a good deal of what in his time was considered conservatism. Daniel Webster alleged that Thomas Jefferson had said of Jackson: “He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place…. [H]e is a dangerous man.” Jackson, too, came to power a decade after a major banking panic, from which the malefactors appeared to have escaped with impunity. In fact, what had happened over that decade was that the broad public undertook a slow, autodidactic reassessment of the economic and social system they had been living under.
Much the same process made the election of Trump possible. Americans like capitalism a lot less than they did at the end of the George W. Bush Administration. It can be not just an antidote to, but a variety of, cronyism. Just as Jackson found his symbol of corruption in the Second Bank of the United States, so has Trump in Nafta and other free trade agreements. Just as defenders of the status quo in the 1830s warned that not rechartering the National Bank would lead to local abuses, today’s argue that scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as Trump has done, will allow China to strengthen its trade position in the Western Pacific. Triumphant pundits prove that Trump “can’t bring back” the jobs that fled the country 40 years ago. Of course he can’t. In the same way he can’t un-fight the Vietnam or Iraq wars or un-inflate the credit bubble of the 2000s. But that doesn’t mean that citizens of the Republic are not entitled to hold accountable those who have blundered them into such predicaments.
Reassessment and Renewal
In our time, as in Jackson’s, the ruling classes claim a monopoly not just on the economy and society but also on the legitimate authority to regulate and restrain it, and even on the language in which such matters are discussed. Elites have full-spectrum dominance of a whole semiotic system. What has just happened in American politics is outside of the system of meanings elites usually rely upon. Mike Pence’s neighbors on Tennyson Street not only cannot accept their election loss; they cannot fathom it. They are reaching for their old prerogatives in much the way that recent amputees are said to feel an urge to scratch itches on limbs that are no longer there. Their instincts tell them to disbelieve what they rationally know. Their arguments have focused not on the new administration’s policies or its competence but on its very legitimacy.
Thus, activists called for recounts in three states—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan—where there was no cause for a recount beyond the fact that losing those states cost Clinton the election. Hollywood hipsters tried to suborn the Electoral College with a video promising Republican loyalists that history would remember them as great heroes if they would only undermine the country’s democratic verdict. Progressives in the high-tech states introduced the concept of “fake news”—false stories, usually generated in obscure corners of the internet, which, whether connected to Trump or not, were supposed to have led well-meaning citizens astray in illegitimate ways. The New York Times even devoted a front-page story to an Englishman named James Dowson, “a far-right political activist who advocated Britain’s exit from the European Union and is a fan of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia,” and whose postings had been shared “tens of thousands of times in the United States.” Some internet surfers, it turned out, were even insulting Hillary Clinton on social media.
January saw the extraordinary turn to blaming Putin himself for having tried to influence the election by hacking the computers of the Democratic National Committee. As of mid-January, these allegations were backed up by assurances—but no hard evidence—from senior intelligence sources in the Obama Administration. The hack having taken place at the DNC, the sources cited included CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm hired by the Democrats, along with those who served on a secret anti-hacking committee the party convened, including former party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and party lawyer Michael Sussmann of the Washington firm Perkins Coie. Increasingly dire warnings appeared of a “rift” between Trump and his intelligence agencies. “Donald Trump Fuels Rift With CIA Over Russian Hack,” headlined the Wall Street Journal. The strange and erroneous implication was that there is something improper about such a rift, some looming constitutional crisis, as if the administrative state were a fourth co-equal branch of government, rather than a part of the executive.
More need for reform has accumulated in the American system than almost anyone seemed to realize a year ago. Barack Obama was first nominated by his party in the boom days before the financial crash—he is a figure of the old regime. In a similar way, the Republican majorities that have just arrived in both houses of Congress were nominated under their own old regime of New Economy glad-handers, which Republican voters repudiated in the presidential primaries. President Trump is the only new element in a system crying out for renewal. Government itself has been rendered vulnerable by various irregularities of the Obama years—in particular the administration’s overreliance on judicial manipulation, executive orders, and ad hoc rule-writing. The new president arrives, alas, well-armed with occasions for saying, “Well, you did it too!” His scope for action will depend on just what reassessments Americans have made in their own minds over eight years of dashed economic dreams, lost global influence, and wobbling social stability. Since the people who elected Trump have gone unheard for a long time, we don’t know what these reassessments are. But we are about to find out. It may take years before we can tell whether Trump’s election hastened America’s decline or provided the last possible means of escaping it.